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Thanks for the Mammaries: RIP, Carol Doda

When Carol Doda took off her top, she ignited San Francisco's sexual revolution.


Carol Doda has been carried aloft by the great hydraulic piano that waits for us all. She died Monday, at age 78, of complications related to kidney failure. And now the town that she helped create—raunchy, daring, priapic and innocent—isn’t the same place.

On June 19, 1964, Carol Doda fired the opening shot of San Francisco’s sexual revolution. OK, it was a cheesy, commercial shot, one closer in leering sensibility to Hugh Hefner’s Playboy magazine than to the (at least putatively) high-minded free love movement that followed it. But when the 26-year-old high-school dropout from Napa County took the stage at the Condor Club that night, tossed aside her pasties and exposed her naked breasts to the audience while doing the Swim, she gave a violent jerk on the thread that would unravel the tightly stitched fabric of American Puritanism.

Nipples! It was all about the nipples. Before Carol (BC), nipples were as off-limits as Communism. After Doda flaunted hers, those forbidden protuberances popped straight up in the collective male American id, like detonators on a psychic bomb that was about to blow 300 years of sexual repression to smithereens.

“Big” Davey Rosenberg, the Condor promoter who dreamed up Doda’s topless stunt, had hit the libido jackpot. The Nipple Word spread like wildfire through the city. Hordes of men flocked to the corner of Broadway and Columbus to ogle the too-good-to-be-true spectacle. Realizing he could double down (no pun intended) on his success, Rosenberg convinced Doda to make her breasts larger. The American topless pioneer also became one of the first women to augment her endowments with silicone. It worked: the crowds expanded along with her cup size. Other club owners on Broadway watched the turnstiles jingle and decided to follow suit. The great topless craze was on.

As Josh Sides writes in Erotic City: Sexual Revolutions and the Making of Modern San Francisco, within a year of Doda’s performance, there were an estimated 35 to 40 topless clubs in the city, dozens of them on and around Broadway. Everything went topless: There was a topless hamburger joint, even a Topless Shoe Shine Stand right next to City Lights Books. North Beach was packed as it had not been since the days of the old Barbary Coast, which was shut down in 1913.

Not everyone was happy about the transformation of Broadway. Matador Club owner Barnaby Conrad unhappily compared the old-fashioned strippers “who did their thing elegantly” with “girls wearing nothing but spangled G-strings [who] ‘danced’ in cannabis-drenched joints in front of glassy-eyed customers.” (It seems unlikely that there was that much cannabis in Broadway strip joints circa 1965, but the glassy-eyed part rings true.) In his book Broadway North Beach: The Golden Years, Dick Boyd wrote that the topless mania replaced what had been a truly bohemian, artistic, fun-loving scene with a vulgar saturnalia.

The defenders of rectitude didn’t go down easily. In April 1965, Mayor Jack Shelley ordered the San Francisco police to arrest topless dancers and waitresses in North Beach, the Tenderloin, and the Mission. The Condor, Big Al’s, Mr. Wonderful, the Moulin Rouge, the Chez Paree, and the superbly named Relax With Evonne, among others, were raided. After her arrest, Doda told reporters, “I don't think the Swim is obscene. I wouldn’t be ashamed to have my parents watch my act.” The courts agreed: Two judges acquitted all the defendants on the grounds that they had not violated community standards, the legal test of obscenity.

Legitimized by the courts, the revolution that Doda started went beyond North Beach. The topless craze opened the door to a veritable cornucopia of sexual offerings in San Francisco. “Adult bookstores,” which barely existed before, suddenly proliferated. Adult movie theaters followed suit. So did massage parlors. These early manifestations of the sexual revolution were not models of feminism, but they could hardly be expected to be. Emerging from a deeply repressed era, they carried more than a whiff of furtiveness—evidenced by the fact that most of the places peddling sex operated in the city’s two traditional transgressive zones, North Beach and the Tenderloin. But they helped change San Francisco’s—and America’s—attitude toward sex. For the first time, sex was something that was right out in the open—passersby could actually see topless dancers through picture windows on Broadway. The deeply rooted idea that sex was dirty, that it was something nice girls and boys should never talk about, had received a body blow from which it would never recover. The tawdry, tourist-friendly, commercial side of the sexual revolution that Doda kicked off was undeniable. But so was its liberating power.

The woman
who started it all was quite a character. After she gave up stripping, Doda fronted a rock band called the Lucky Stiffs, appeared as the on-air host for San Francisco's Channel 36 (the channel's slogan, "The Perfect 36," represented a considerable downgrading of her 44DDs), and opened a lingerie shop. I didn't know her well, but from time to time used to see her in North Beach, where she continued to perform as a singer and comedian until her health began to fail this year. I didn't know her well, but used to see her in North Beach from time to time. She had one of those faces that appeared to have recorded every drink and party it had ever been exposed to. But I prefer to remember her from a slightly earlier time.

Back in the '90s, my friend David Talbot once threw a rocking party at his old apartment on Montgomery Street, just up the block from the apartment where Allen Ginsberg wrote Howl, an earlier pivotal moment in the sexual revolution. It was one of those all-out bashes where the police were called three times. Carol was hanging out on a seat in the entryway, next to a photo editor pal from New York. This photo editor had the sly habit of using his gayness as an excuse to grab women's tits. Sitting drunkenly next to Carol, he said, “Can I feel these?” and, without waiting for an answer, slid his hands down her blouse and grabbed a double handful. Without missing a beat, Carol reached down and grabbed his joint. Then they both cracked up.

That was Carol—a San Francisco original. She changed the city—for better and for worse, but mostly for better. On some neon-lit Broadway in the sky, I hope she is doing the Swim, forever.


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